Writing master’s thesis in Helsinki

Esther Anono: a story of an exchange Student in the Masters programme at the University of Helsinki, Department of Human Nutrition and Food Related Behavior

The exchange programme took place between 1st of September to 13th December, 2019 (3 months and 2 weeks). The purpose of the exchange programme was twofold; capacity building and participation in nutrition classes. In terms of capacity building, I participated in  data management and analysis of the data collected in Kenya through the KENFIN EDURA project (February to May, 2019). Part of the data forms my thesis titled Dietary Diversity and Nutrition status of Early-adolescents in Nairobi County, Kenya. In addition, the exchange programme accorded me guided support in my thesis work by one of my supervisors Dr. Noora Kanerva. Secondly, I participated in selected nutrition courses to enhance my knowledge and skills to guide me in my research project. My participation in the nutrition course work provided valuable experience that will inform the ongoing Kenyatta University competency-based curriculum development at the nutrition department, where I am a student.

During the exchange programme, I worked closely with Hanna Walsh, a nutrition master’s student at the University of Helsinki and KENFIN-EDURA Project Coordinator who guided me under the supervision of the KENFIN-EDURA project team members Prof. Mikael Folgelholm, Dr. Noora Kanevra and Prof. Erkkola Maijaliisa. Hanna assisted me in the familiarization of the institution and in the registration process as a student. I participated in 3 courses: Kaleidoscope (Introduction to nutrition); Dietary Assessments and Masters Seminar Thesis under the guidance of KENFIN-EDURA project team members. The courses were selected based on the topic of my thesis and hence would provide in-depth more understanding and hands on experience to enrich my research work. The courses were undertaken weekly, each for 4-hour duration inclusive of practical sessions and group work.  All the courses were administered online and a student was expected to prepare for lecturers by reading resource materials provided online which was followed by lecturers and discussion on the different topics prior to the lecture. The course work included group work, presentations by visiting lecturers, practical sessions and group presentations.

The courses participated in during the exchange programme 

The Kaleidoscope course, which involved career development in nutrition. In this course we were required to interview nutrition experts from different fields to understand the career paths in nutrition and the skills and qualifications required. I was part of a group that interviewed a senior officer at the Finnish Food Authority and developed a brochure profile from the findings of the interview. As part of the course the groups presented the different nutritionist profile briefs developed. What caught my attention was the diverse opportunities present in the nutrition field and innovativeness among nutrition professionals to curve a niche for themselves even in industries where you would not expect to nutritionists to work in. Furthermore, in this course we were introduced to various research methodologies, their appropriate use, what they entail and their limitations. This was particularly beneficial to me as I gained knowledge on how to undertake laboratory research. 

The dietary assessment course was beneficial as it sharpened my skills in dietary research methodology by providing practical tasks, group work assignments and peer review of the different methodologies. The backbone of my research thesis is based on dietary methodology thus this course provided an in-depth understanding on how to undertake analysis and interpretation of results from dietary methodologies. I also gained a new skill in the use of digital technology in dietary assessment. Participation in this course enabled me to plan my thesis analysis based on the data collected by the KENFIN-EDURA project. 

The master’s seminar thesis was an interactive course where students made presentations    of either thesis plans or results under the guidance of the course lecturer. This was to enable critique and guide on better synthesis of the thesis.  I presented my proposal concept during this class. In addition, there were lectures on thesis writing and paper writing. This course re-enforced my skills and provided in depth understanding of thesis writing and paper writing. 

During these courses I interacted with students from different countries and disciplines. This accorded me the opportunity to understand public health nutrition from a multidisciplinary and global perspective particularly nutrition issues from a developed country perspective. I learnt much through participating in class and group discussions on various issues related to nutrition.  Through each individual (classmates and lecturers) I learnt of how nutrition is a multi-disciplinary subject in the context of their countries. I particularly enjoyed the group tasks and practical sessions as these provided hands on experience in the concepts being delivered in lectures. This provided an avenue to share and learn from each other’s experiences beyond the conventional theoretical aspects. Through sharing of experiences, I learnt a lot about the feasibility of using different research methodologies in different contexts.

I was also engaged in data management process together with the KENFIN-EDURA project members and students. This involved bi-weekly meetings where we were guided on how to check on data quality, data cleaning and data analysis. This phase however delayed and began mid-October due to technical issues of merging the datasets by the software programmer that took a longer time than anticipated. Participation in this process was beneficial as I gained skills in data management and analysis guided by my supervisor Dr. Noora Kanevra and the other KENFIN-EDURA team members.  By the end of my stay we had completed quality checks on the dietary data and conducted some analysis. I would like to appreciate the team for their time in guiding me on how to analyze data and interpret the findings. It is with their assistance that I was able to come up with a presentation for the Kenyatta University Biannual Scientific Conference (21st-25th October, 2019) as part of the preliminary analysis of adolescent nutrition aspects from KENFIN-EDURA data.

During my stay, I enrolled for a basic Finnish Language course work. This was motivated by my experience during shopping whereby all the instructions and ingredient products were in Finnish language. It took me almost 2 hours to get the basic shopping done with assistance from strangers. I felt the need to learn at least the basics to help me not only in shopping but also in communication. With the support from the KENFIN-EDURA team members they encouraged me to undertake the course which was examined at the end of the period. During this period, I learnt the basics which enabled me to easily interact with other fellow students, roommates and persons I interacted with. I also engaged in other activities within the university. I participated in a PhD thesis seminar defense presentation by one of the nutrition students. This experience allowed me to see how different this process of defense is conducted in the University of Helsinki compared to my university (Kenyatta University). It was quite a delight and interesting process particularly having to have an opposer (visiting scholar with expertise in the field of thesis examination being presented from another university locally or internationally). 

I completed the courses I registered for and the students were examined as the curses proceeded.  I acquired basic data analysis skills, completed the data quality checks required for my thesis data analysis from the KENFIN-EDURA data.  I developed a data analysis plan for my work with support from Prof. Mikael, Dr. Noora and Prof. Maijaliisa. I can attest that through this exchange program I have gained invaluable experience in the field of nutrition globally, practical hands on experience in dietary assessment methods and data management skills. Additionally, I have also gained immense experience from interacting with fellow students from various countries, backgrounds and fields of study. This has helped me in forging great friendships out of this and in building upon my cultural awareness on how best to integrate the different ideas and perspectives pertaining diverse issues. I believe that through my interaction with fellow course mates that I have been able to provide them with insights to nutrition issues and how research is conducted from a developing country’s perspective. I believe my student colleagues have also gained insights in regards to higher education system and culture/norms in Kenya. This experience has re-enforced my desire to pursue research as a career, with an interest in implementation science and a possibility of pursuing other related career path ways in future as I build up on my expertise.  

Other activities 

I attended a nutrition public lecture organized by the nutrition department and a welcome party for nutrition students at the beginning of the course organized the nutrition students club. This enabled me to interact and create rapport with my lecturers and fellow students respectively.  I joined the nutrition club “Oikos” as a member and was able to participate in several of their activities and meetings including a walk into the forest to pick mushrooms. I also joined the UniSport programme which offered various physical activity classes where one could exercise. I particularly enjoyed this programme and managed to attend at least two sessions a week during my stay with support from Hanna Walsh who was a great inspiration for me stick to the programme. This helped me to keep fit and offered me relaxation from all the pressures of school work. I can attest that from this experience I have now included exercise as part of my weekly activities.  Apart from these co-curriculum activities, I also managed to explore Finland by visiting several areas for familiarization and site seeing. I visited the harbor, fish market, museum, old site monuments, Estonia and snow skating sites. I also experienced the change of seasons from summer to autumn to winter and learnt how to keep up with dress codes for these seasons.

I wish to thank the KENFIN-EDURA project through the funding from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for Finland, for according me this invaluable opportunity through which I have gained immense experience.

Esther Anono